When Timnit Kefela was an undergraduate at Rutgers University, she worked in a lab that used microbes to help plants become drought-resistant. The project captivated Timnit, whose community experienced drought and resulting food rationing in her home city of Nairobi, Kenya.
“I had no idea that science could give me agency over problems that I didn’t think I could solve,” said Timnit.
Timnit came to UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management to continue her work on pollutants and food systems. Timnit, along with master’s student Kazia Mermel ’21, received the Robert L. Boughton Jr. Endowed Environmental Communication Fellowship.
The Bren School Strategic Environmental Communication & Media Program provides students with tools to educate, engage, persuade, and motivate behavior change. The Boughton Fellowship provides support for students who are committed to making a difference in the field as communicators. Boughton Fellows take courses in strategy, writing and presentation skills, data visualization, survey design and environmental public opinion, environmental media production, social media and the environment, and marketing.
“If scientific research is not communicated effectively, it can remain in an academic echo chamber, unseen and unheard by those who would benefit from it most,” said Bob Boughton ’80.
The Boughton Fellowship recognized the efforts of Timnit and Kazia, two students working toward environmental justice. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.
Dr. Lisa Leombruni is a Bren School lecturer and the director and co-founder of the Strategic Environmental Communication & Media Program. She is passionate about providing students with applied opportunities to create work for clients. Timnit and Kazia’s client was the Bren School itself. As Boughton Fellows, the students developed workshops, curricula and lectures to advance the field’s understanding of environmental justice education.
“At the most basic level, we must get environmental managers to the level where they’re asking questions about making projects and tools more inclusive,” said Kazia, who helped create four learning modules at the graduate level. “That’s one area where it’s important to build context for students. In coming up with new ideas, the context of historical exclusion gets missed.”
Data analysis tools and repositories of information should capture the dimension of racial justice. Kazia cites examples such as Global EJ Atlas, a database tied to a map that shows a visual representation of global environmental justice struggles.
Timnit and a group of master's students organized around the need for environmental justice at the Bren School. The conversations coalesced into a course that master’s students Sam Furtner ’17, Sarah Salem ’18, Wendy Bagnasco ’18, and Erika Petroy ’18 developed with the input and advisory support from Dr. David Pellow and Dr. Lisa Leombruni, which the latter now teaches annually. Timnit developed a lecture on the history of environmental justice, and specifically, pollution justice, that she presents each year.
“Having formal degrees means that you have a toolkit,” said Timnit. “It doesn’t mean you’re more qualified to address environmental problems that face a specific community than the people who live there. In environmental justice principles, there's this ideology of understanding that the community is the expert.”
This approach, called democratic science implementation, can help reverse the trend of environmental managers who disregard the needs of the community when addressing problems.
“Environmental justice scholarship will require you to be adaptable. It will require you to be empathetic, to listen, and to remove yourself from the work,” said Timnit.
The Boughton Fellowship supported Timnit’s vision of becoming a professor who teaches approaches that give communities agency in the solution of environmental problems. She also hopes to work at a minority-serving institution.
“I’ve been the only Black woman in a lot of these spaces,” said Timnit. “It is incredibly important to see somebody who looks like you accomplishing the very things that you aspire to. I would very much like to be that for people.”
For Kazia, the Boughton Fellowship meant that she could spend time doing work she felt deeply about without financial pressure.
“The fellowship was an opportunity to give back to the school and get compensated for my work,” said Kazia. “Fellowships can provide a critical role in providing support for environmental justice projects.”